Brooks Whelan and John Milhiser: Victims of ‘too many white guys’
This article was originally supposed to comment on the firing of Brooks Whelan from Saturday Night Live. However just as I was about to start typing, I discovered that John Milhiser and Noel Wells had also been let go from the show. This means that all three of them can only boast of one year on the show. They can take solace in the fact that Sarah Silverman, Damon Wayans and Robert Downey Jr also have ’One Year on SNL’ on their CV’s.
Fans of the show could have seen these departures coming from a mile away. None of these comedians made an impact on the show. Brooks had two segments on Weekend Update that raised a laugh. Noel became pretty much a utility player apart from her great Lena Dunham impression in the first episode of the season and her impression of Nancy Grace which suffered from mediocre writing. Milhiser will always have his great Lady Gaga sketch but I cannot recall a single other moment where he took centre stage.
Perhaps the reason these three have been let go is because they just aren’t funny enough? Maybe they didn’t get along with others in the writing room? For all we know maybe they were divas backstage?! But one factor that certainly hasn’t helped their chances is the fact that the SNL cast is bloated and full of white people. The diversity issue plagued SNL throughout it’s 39th season from the moment the new additions to the cast were announced about this time last year. Whelan, Milhiser and Wells were joined by SNL writer Mike O’Brien, being promoted to repertory status. As well as that, Good Neighbor sketch artists, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. Critics were quick to point out the fact they were five guys and one woman, all white and it didn’t let off from there. Alleviating a little only when Sasheer Zamata joined the cast and two black female comedians entered the writer’s room after Christmas.
In a cast full of white people, it was always going to be hard to stand out for the new cast members. Luckily for Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves as the supplier of new ‘digital shorts’ to make up for the departure of Andy Samberg (and the Lonely Island). Bennett may also have staked a claim for Bill Hader’s typical old roles of generic game show host/TV presenter. Mike O’Brien, after an initial slow start, made a name for himself in the later episodes of the season with his pre-recorded material such as ’Monster Pals’ and ’Bird Bible’.
Whelan and Milhiser had no chance to become breakout stars when all of the leading male roles of sketches were filled by Taran Killam or Bobby Moynihan. Longer serving cast members with audience rapport. Perhaps maybe even Mooney, Bennett or O’Brien. Not to mention the host of that particular episode taking the role (SNL saw a white male host the show twelve out of twenty one times in the previous season). Noel Wells suffered a similar fate with the women. She also had the poor luck of being part of, possibly, SNL’s strongest female cast in years. Kate McKinnon has just been awarded an Emmy nod for her first season as a regular cast member and Aidy Bryant stepped up her game hugely for her first season as a regular cast member.
So where does Saturday Night Live go from here? They’ve dropped three cast members now and Nasim Pedrad is likely to be going too now that her sitcom Mulaney has been picked up by FOX. That’s a step in a good direction in that SNL is now cutting down it’s bloated cast but there is still a lack of diversity. I know I’m only repeating the words of various critics when I say that SNL needs more diversity in it’s cast. I think the reason why it’s something that SNL repeatedly gets hammered over the head with is because SNL is such a comedy institution in America. It’s been around since the 70’s. Gerald Ford was President! The show debuted a week or so after ‘The Thrilla in Manila’. It’s about as American as a Bald Eagle and yet it’s cast doesn’t exactly represent the diversity that’s seen in America today. Ditto the city in which it is filmed, New York City.
With their lack of colour in the cast, SNL is narrowing the amount of comedy it can explore. The episode in which Kerry Washington hosted, highlighted how much more could be done with more black cast members. The episode had Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah bouncing off of Washington repeatedly. There was the first appearance of “How’s He Doin’?” since Maya Rudolph last hosted, “What Does My Girl Say?” and of course the self aware cold open sketch mocking the lack of diversity on the show. Other good examples from later in the season include “Black Jeopardy” and “28 Reasons” with Sasheer Zamata now joining Pharoah and Thompson.
Look at how the hiring of Zamata helped when the Solange Knowles/Jay-Z kerfuffle lighted up the tabloids. Zamata was able to portray Solange on the very next episode to parody it (though Maya Rudolph had to be brought on for a special appearance as Beyonce). Without Zamata, the Solange Knowles incident could have been relegated to a two line joke on Weekend Update. Instead it got it’s own sketch. If this diversity was spread out more to extend to Hispanics and Asians, we would no longer have to witness Bobby Moynihan do a toned down yellow face to play Kim Jong Un.
If Saturday Night Live moves towards more diversity, we may never see another situation like that which befell Whelan, Milhiser and Wells over the last few days. As for them, like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, they have good company in other comedians who lasted a season or less with Silverman, Wayans and Downey Jr all doing well for themselves since their departures. One of them is an Emmy nominated actress, another created his own sketch show helping to launch the careers of the likes of Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx. The other one is Iron Man!